Factory tours are great places to find innovators. Touring French Broad Chocolate, a bean-to-bar craft chocolate factory, provided some surprising innovation examples, such as a solar bean roaster and an unusual use of a saber saw, along with the opportunity for some delightful tasting. The best part was interviewing the co-founder of this artisan chocolate company, Dan Rattigan. Details of the innovation insights from Dan will be in a separate post. For now, a few pictorial highlights of the tour.
Outside the French Broad Chocolate Factory in Asheville, NC. Here, chocolates are made with fresh local organic ingredients as much as possible and cacao beans fairly sourced directly from small growers in Costa Rica.
Dan, along with his co-founder and wife, Jael, have lived and worked in Costa Rica, learning about how cacao is grown, harvested, and dried. They work with local growers not only for the cacao but also to make a positive impact on their villages. This spirit of helping others is a focal point of their mission as a business.
High quality cacao beans are identified by the growers, bagged, and shipped to Asheville. Many beans are required for just a little chocolate.
Chocolate maker and tour guide, Crawford, demonstrates how the cacao is hand screened to remove any poor beans, twigs, rocks, and other material no one wants in chocolate. Yep, they handle each and every bean by hand.
The cacao is roasted, similar to roasting coffee beans. Roasting is necessary to improve the flavor of the chocolate. Dan built a solar roaster on the roof of the Chocolate Factory. It generated more heat than expected and caught on fire. The next generation roaster is being fabricated from steel. This is a good example of learning by doing.
The roasted beans are cracked to remove the shell from the nib, which is the meaty center of the bean essential for chocolate. The Chocolate Factory made a machine for the process, based on similar machines they saw (a fast follower or innovation from necessity approach?). One bucket collects the nibs while the other collects shells.
Some shell can make its way into the nib bucket, so the contents of the bucket are winnowed, leaving only nib. The bucket contents are poured into the clear container at the top of this picture. A saber saw is used to open and close the chute that leads to a vacuum system, regulating the flow into the vacuum (the saber saw is a newer and innovative addition as they use to open and close the shoot by hand). Lighter shell is sucked up and away while heavy nib drops to another container.
Next comes conching and refining. Nibs are ground and heated, becoming liquefied in the process. Stone grinding wheels turn against another grinding stone on the bottom of the pot. Other ingredients are also added at this stage. Temperature and time influence the flavor. When completed, the cocoa liquor is cooled, formed into loafs, and allowed to rest.
Next is tempering the chocolate, which gives it a shiny look and proper texture for bars. Tempering is automated by the machine Crawford is using, which precisely raises and lowers the temperature of the chocolate while stirring it. It can then be pumped into molds to produce bars of chocolate.
While there was some chocolate tasting during the factory tour, we decided a trip to their Chocolate Lounge was required for a full French Broad Chocolate experience. What is a Chocolate Lounge? Think hip coffee shop with chocolates of all types and forms, including delicious cake, pie, and mousse.
Ah, yes, visiting the Chocolate Lounge was a good decision.
Better yet was the time with co-founder Dan, discussing innovation as an artisan chocolate maker. That post is coming soon.